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Will technology force libraries into the final chapter?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A noted historian is dusting off a century-old warning that technology may force some libraries to close.

And he's doing it amidst the world's biggest collection of books, as the Library of Congress begins a survey of human knowledge at the end of the millennium.The warning comes from Jonathan Denton Spence, a leading British-born historian at Yale University who spoke Tuesday at an international conference, which will cover more than 20 topics over one week, from cosmology -- the study of the universe -- to the condition of modern music.

"Internet access to the Web sites attached to a particular monograph, as some authors are now beginning to provide, can allow the reader to enter a whole universe of sources that the book's author had no space to provide in the printed version," Spence said in his prepared remarks. "Archives are swiftly moving to selective computer storage and retrieval, so they can be scanned from afar, and the relevant passages downloaded by the interested researcher."

The Library of Congress itself has begun to put online the letters of George Washington and many other historical documents.

Spence took his cue from a similar conference held in 1904 in St. Louis. There Guido Biagi, director of two great libraries in Florence, Italy, predicted that some libraries would have to close their doors.

"The electric post or the air-ships will have then shortened distances," Spence quoted Biagi as saying, the telephone will make it possible to hear in Melbourne a graphophone disk (that had been) asked for, a few minutes earlier, from the British Museum. There will be few readers but an infinite number of hearers, who will listen from their own homes to the spoken paper, the spoken book."

Spence commented, "Ninety-five years after Biagi issued those words, we have reached just that point, as perhaps only a librarian could have guessed."